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We asked engineering leaders for their perspectives on what a successful engineering org looks like for their companies, and the goals they put in place to achieve it.

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In your experience, what does a successful engineering org look like?

Lindsey Bleimes, VP of Engineering, Nubank: At a high level, it looks like an engaged and curious team of not only engineers but collaborative partners like product managers and designers, producing value for the business and customer quickly through creativity, experimentation, and good systematic thinking and technical expertise.

It’s a team with a clear vision for the future and clear goals and responsibilities, with the ability to adjust the vision and the details as new information is learned. It’s a team of people willing to jump in and do whatever roles or tasks are needed regardless of official responsibilities. And it’s an organization that consciously builds psychological safety and values a range of experiences and backgrounds.

Airbrake

Scott Baldwin, Director of Engineering, Airbrake: Successful engineering organizations show symptoms of self-organization, flow, and continual improvement in support of the primary business goal.

Self-organization is present at the lowest levels. Small teams are devising solutions without top-down oversight. Institutional leaders avoid becoming bottlenecks. Teams have process lifecycle ‘signals’ which enable teams to self-organize.

Flow is evident because changes are promoted in delivery pipelines without friction. Ideas move from ‘concept to cash’ because teams scope their work into smaller units. Mechanisms for change and adaptation (kaizen) are not omitted from team processes. Teams avoid becoming stale in skills and technologies. Infrastructure is cultivated continually preventing deterioration over time. Whether done weekly or on some other frequency, teams use process signals to inspect their process, product, and infrastructure.

Sangeeta Narayanan, Director of Media Cloud Engineering, Netflix: It’s hard to define a single success metric for an organization, which is why most organizations use some sort of framework and data to track their health. Putting that aside for a moment, at the broadest level, a successful organization is one that is fulfilling its mission and delivering on its commitments. Delivering results is necessary but it’s not everything; the group should also have strong sense of identity and purpose, where every team member feels included and empowered to contribute to its success, and safe to bring their best authentic selves to work.

How do you make sure your teams are set up for success in achieving these goals?

LB: This takes a lot of work and a lot of repetition. I like to try to make sure we are talking about what makes a successful team all the time, explaining our values and our principles and why they matter. If people understand why something is important, they’ll be more bought in and will help build the culture and outcomes we want and speak up when we are off track.

Companies and teams should have practices to create and update their vision and goals regularly.  Teams should talk about how they organize and divide responsibilities, they should have rituals for feedback and learning, and have a good understanding of short and long-term tradeoffs. Leaders should be trained to understand how to nurture a psychologically safe environment. Ultimately, good behaviors should be rewarded through performance management.

SB: We refer to our primary business goal metaphorically as The Dragon which is guarding the treasure we seek. To obtain the treasure, we must prioritize our tactics to defeat The Dragon before it defeats us. These tactics include:

  • Giving teams more responsibility and authority and raising accountability for components they are responsible for
  • Structuring teams into three to five members each
  • Balancing the number of experienced and less-experienced team members on each team
  • Stop starting new work before old work is planned
  • Making invisible work visible
  • Vary retrospective formats to keep improvement discussions engaging

SN: It starts with creating clarity of mission and purpose, coupled with communicating and reinforcing that continuously. Another important ingredient is sharing broader context and encouraging them to use that context to make informed decisions. I aspire to create an environment where people feel safe to lean into risks, which goes back to equipping them with all the information they need. Last but not least, I believe trust is the foundation of every relationship  – be it between peers, manager, and report, or ICs and leadership. I’m extremely fortunate to work at Netflix, where all these concepts are woven into the culture with core tenets like Freedom, Responsibility, and Context not Control.

How does your org handle accountability for these goals?

LB: Accountability is best handled through consistent, transparent performance management.  That means leaders setting clear goals and expectations regularly, and then following up and giving feedback along the way. (this also means having a way for people to give feedback to peers and their managers). Some of those goals are directly tied to business and customer outcomes, while others are indirect but still well understood to be important for the business long term (such as team health).

It’s also important to distinguish between team goals and individual goals: business outcomes are typically team goals, where a leader is accountable but the team together is responsible.  Individual goals may look more like taking on more complex tasks or learning something new.

SB: We begin by teaching the guiding principles that will make our team successful. Teams must understand the importance of limiting work in progress and reducing batch size. Leaders of our teams take more active roles in the planning, communicating, and execution of their components. This means they work with pod members in producing task lists and designs as opposed to having them provided by project managers. Senior leaders provide certification that the plans are consistent with team direction.

SN: I think of accountability in two ways. One is establishing structured ways to assess and affirm our contributions to the company. This includes clearly defined goals and a framework to track them e.g. OKRs and SLOs for systems. In addition to that, I focus on creating a culture of accountability. That can be done in many ways but feedback is a critical piece. We owe it to each other to provide candid feedback, delivered respectfully so we can hold ourselves, our peers, and leaders accountable. My leaders and I share the feedback we’ve received and our action plan to address it. Another crucial component is empowerment and ownership. If people are part of the goal-setting process and feel empowered to pursue those goals, they’re much more likely to hold themselves to those commitments and expect that of their peers.

Describe a time when you realized you’d set your teams an unattainable goal. How did you communicate this, and what steps did you take to get back on track?

LB: This happens a lot. When a problem is ambiguous, I like the idea of setting really big inspirational goals in order to see what is possible and not artificially limit a team. But that requires communicating the strategy up front so people aren’t stressed. Then we need to be realistic; once we have a strong sense of the details of a project or goal, we can get much better at setting an attainable scope and timeline and committing to it.

But even then you can miss something or circumstances can change. When that happens, I like to communicate very quickly and clearly to the team, stakeholders, and leadership about what changed and why, and what the new plan is. I take a matter-of-fact approach, and always come with the new solution and timeline prepared. It’s easier to explain a problem when you have a new path forward handy, and the longer you wait the harder it is to have that conversation.

SB: Our team has a goal that new work is done in Go. We started a microservice project in Go but the team members involved had little experience with that language. Project progress stalled and it wasn’t going to ship on time.

After several conversations with the team, I realized I was putting an American football player on a soccer pitch and expecting goals to get scored. Both sports include kicking a ball, right? Everything should just work, right? The team was not equipped to play the new sport. They didn’t have the right equipment and skill needed to succeed. The team self-organized, and proposed using the language they knew. They committed to deliver the entire project in a short, predictable time. They did. Our original goal was unattainable and we learned that building new services in Go requires additional preparatory considerations.

SN: Typically I try to have goal setting be a collective exercise. If the team has the broader context of what we are trying to accomplish, we can come up with goals that everyone can get behind. That said, top-down goals do serve a purpose as a rallying cry to get people working towards the same goal.

I had a situation where my team was getting bogged down by the cost of maintaining multiple legacy systems, and finding it hard to dig themselves out of that hole. I decided that setting a hard deadline with (artificial) targets would bring about a sense of urgency, empower people to prioritize this work against customer-visible features, and help manage stakeholder expectations. I was completely comfortable moving the date out, and thought I had made that very clear.

Turns out I was wrong. People felt a strong sense of being pushed towards a date for reasons they couldn’t fully understand. It took a while for the feedback to reach me. Once I’d internalized it, I went back, clarified my intent, and together we arrived at a shared set of expectations. Upon reflection, there are several things I should have done differently: provide context more clearly, seek feedback sooner, ensure I had a solid foundation of trust, and develop deeper relationships with some of the team members.

Airbrake

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Episode 03 Is fear stopping your engineering team from achieving its goals?
Making goals a habit: A guide to reaching engineering goals
Episode 05 Making goals a habit: A guide to reaching engineering goals